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Maximizing the Power of Women of Color

The representation of women of color in corporate America and political office should reflect their growing economic and electoral power.

African American female business leaders attend the Essence Festival at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on July 2, 2016, in New Orleans. (AP/Cheryl Gerber)
African American female business leaders attend the Essence Festival at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on July 2, 2016, in New Orleans. (AP/Cheryl Gerber)

This column contains a correction.

Women of color will soon make up the majority of America’s female population. Many of them are highly educated, and the group as a whole represents a powerful voting bloc and a growing portion of American spending power. Yet women of color are still widely underrepresented in corporate leadership and political office. Removing barriers for women of color to fully maximize their consumer, brain, and voting power is the only way to ensure that they become decision-makers and political and business leaders. Otherwise, traditional forms of power will remain in place, and representation will continue not to reflect changing demographics.

According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by 2044. The Asian population—whose growth is only outpaced by those identifying as two or more races—is projected to grow 143 percent by 2060. The Latino population is expected to grow 115 percent more than one-quarter of the total U.S. population. The African American population is projected to grow 63.6 percent by 2060 and will make up 17.9 percent of the total U.S. population.

The number of women of color in business does not reflect the group’s spending power

In 2013, Latinos represented $1.2 trillion in spending power—a sum largely spent by women. According to a recent study, 86 percent of Latinas are the “primary shopper and decision maker in the household.” Similar to Latinos, African Americans also spend more than $1 trillion annually, and African American women control more than 40 percent of that spending power. Despite businesses’ bottom lines, however, the corporate landscape lacks an adequate number of women of color.

While there are many female leaders in corporate America—such as Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Inc., and Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox Corporation—women of color still represent a small share of corporate leadership. Cathy Hughes successfully beat the odds to own the largest African American broadcast company in the United States and became the first African American woman to head a publicly traded corporation. But the odds are stacked pretty high for women of color—not just because of a lack of access to opportunity but also because of the difficulty maneuvering within society’s perception of what these women represent. According to the Center for Women Policy Studies, more than one-third of women of color believe that they must minimize their race or ethnicity to succeed in the workplace.

Lack of inclusion is bad business

Women of color represent approximately 37 percent of working-age women. But they make up less than 10 percent of positions for “first/mid-level officials and managers;” less than 5 percent of positions for “executive/senior-level officials and managers;” and less than 1 percent of CEOs of S&P 500 Companies. Additionally, women of color only hold approximately 3 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies, and many of those women are double counted because they serve on multiple boards.

This lack of inclusion for women of color is bad business. Studies show that corporations with female CEOs outperform the stock market, and companies with female board members have higher profitability than those with no women on the board. There is also a correlation between higher levels of diversity and better financial performance. A study from McKinsey & Company showed that companies in the bottom quartile in terms of racial, ethnic, and/or gender diversity had a lower likelihood of posting above average returns than the average company examined. Companies in the top quartile of racial and ethnic diversity, meanwhile, were 35 percent more likely to post gains above their national industry median.

Despite the lack of women of color on corporate boards, there has been a significant increase in the number of women of color who own a business. Today, 1 in 3 women-owned businesses are owned by women of color. Black women are starting businesses at six times the national average. Between 1997 and 2015, Latina-owned businesses grew by 244 percent, and African American women-owned businesses grew by 322 percent. Women now own 30 percent of all businesses in the United States, and 14 percent of those are controlled by African American women—representing $52.6 billion in annual revenue. But these gains are not without barriers. Women of color have less access to capital, influential networks, and mentors.

Women of color are underrepresented in political leadership roles

Corporate America is not the only arena in which women of color are underrepresented. They are also largely absent from state legislatures, gubernatorial races, and U.S. Congress. Currently, members of Congress are 80 percent white and 80 percent male. The first woman of color was elected to Congress in 1964—Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), an Asian American woman. In 1968, Rep. Shirley Chisolm (D-NY) became the first African American woman elected to Congress. It was not until 1989 that the first Latina, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), was elected.

Today, there is only one woman of color in the U.S. Senate: Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI). And the 36 women of color in the House make up approximately 8 percent of representatives overall. The numbers are just as bleak at the state level. Women of color comprise approximately 5 percent of all state legislators and less than 3 percent of all statewide elected executives.

These numbers are particularly troubling given the growing population of women of color and the rising electoral power that the group holds. In the past two presidential elections, black women turned out to vote at higher rates than any other group. Between 2000 and 2014, women of color represented more than 70 percent of the growth in women eligible to vote—mostly driven by Asian American women and Latinas. Between 2000 and 2014, in fact, Asian American women saw their eligible voter population grow by 107 percent. Latinas saw their eligible voter population rise more than 82 percent.

But women of color face significant obstacles when running for office. Overall, women are less likely to be recruited, are less likely to receive funding, and are subjected to unfair expectations. Racial and gender stereotypes exacerbate these issues for women of color. Further, many women of color represent less affluent areas and have less access to donor networks, leaving them in a crunch to raise money. For instance, in the Maryland Democratic primary election for U.S. Senate, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) found it difficult to raise as much money as her male primary opponent, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

Additionally, research has found that women of color do not think of themselves as equally capable or as qualified to be leaders, even when they have achieved significant professional success. Nonetheless, two women of color are currently running for the California U.S. Senate seat in the general election: California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA). And research shows that when women run for elected office and win, they do just as good or better than their male counterparts in office.

Policymakers and society must remove barriers to allow more women of color to run for office and gain corporate prominence. As women of color continue to grow as a significant power base both economically and politically, it is critical that they take their rightful seats in corporate America and political office.

Danyelle Solomon is the Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

* Correction, December 19, 2017: This column has been corrected to clarify the number of women-owned businesses that are owned by women of color.

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Danyelle Solomon

Former Vice President, Race and Ethnicity Policy